Some of you newer people (are there any newer people? who knows) may not know this, but this website and I used to be kind of internet famous.
Don’t laugh, I’m serious. At its peak (2001-2006), bluishorange got 4,000 unique visitors a day. Blogs were a brand-new thing, I was writing almost every day, and it didn’t hurt that I was young and cute. Sometimes when I sat down to write I would picture all 4,000 people standing together in a room–this was encouraging at times, but other times all those imaginary people were just staring at me expectantly, which was nerve-wracking.
Lots of good things happened to me as a result of that traffic. I met a ton of amazing people (many of whom are now my closest friends), I was nominated for awards, I got to be on a panel at SXSW Interactive. An anonymous reader (and eventual friend) gifted me his used MacBook to take on my road trip in 2007.
But some bad things happened, too, and I’ll tell you about a few of them here.
In late 2000, I quit my job as a web designer to go back to university, and after I quit, a former coworker began to send me lots of emails. They were friendly at first: he wrote responses to things I’d written on my website, or notes about what was happening at my former workplace. Then he asked me out. I politely declined, but the emails kept coming–mostly he was trying to convince me that I should in fact go out with him. We had not been in the same department at work, and though we’d worked in the same room of cubicles, we had never actually spoken in person. But as best I could tell, reading my website had made him feel like he knew me in a way that was very real to him.
One day I made the mistake of mentioning on my website a band that I was going to see at a street festival. I had a few friends in the band, and I’d made their website for them, and I was really excited to see them perform.
You can see where this is going, right? He was there. Of course he was there, and I can’t believe I was surprised by it. He sat under a tree near the stage, and though he was wearing mirrored sunglasses, I could tell that he hardly took his eyes off me. He was a big guy, and to a 22-year-old 125-pound girl like me, he looked a bit menacing. I had come to the festival with a few friends who were enjoying the show, so I didn’t say anything to them or try to get them to leave with me, though I probably should have. When the show ended, he went up to the merchandise table, bought a CD, and then walked away.
I got home that night to another long, desperate email, and (I remember this like it was last week) it ended with, “Please help me, Alison. Please be my friend.”
I replied immediately with, “Please do not contact me ever again,” put all his emails and my responses into an archive folder so I wouldn’t have to look at them in my inbox, and called my father. He insisted we talk to a lawyer (a family friend), who advised me to keep all the emails in case they were needed later, and told me that I needed to take my website down.
I took it down for about two weeks, which was all I could take, but I never again said anything online about places I might be going. The guy emailed me one more time in response to my plea not to contact me. It was full of invective–I was a bitch, and a tease, and I had led him on, and he was just trying to be nice and what the fuck was wrong with me.
Sometimes in my dreams I can still see my reflection in his mirrored sunglasses.
It was mostly easy to not inform the internet of where I was going to be in the future, but harder to avoid everyone knowing that I would be attending a conference I went to at the same time every year.
In the months leading up to SXSW 2003 (or 2004? I can’t remember exactly), there was a guy who would leave lots of comments on my website. The comments were mostly harmless, but his own website was less so. It was more of a home page than a website–he had a lot of different little sections on the page with his favorite quotes, links, and a few of his opinions, most of which were about what races of girls he liked and didn’t like. Fully half of the quotes and links on that page were mine.
He had never emailed me personally, but his apparent level of interest in me reminded me enough of my former coworker that I was pretty freaked out by him.
In a comment a few weeks before SXSW, he informed me that he would be in town during the conference and wanted to meet me. I did not want to meet him, so I ignored the comment, but I worried about the conference itself. I didn’t know what he looked like; would he just come up and blindside me?
I spent most of the conference looking over my shoulder. Eventually my friend Ryan met him briefly outside the convention center, then ran inside to describe him to me and let me know he was nearby and asking where I was. I quickly left the convention center via an exit on the other side of the building, and was lucky enough not to encounter him for the rest of the conference.
This is where my memory gets a little fuzzy. After the conference I remember uploading a lengthy .htaccess file to block his many different IP addresses from accessing my website. Eventually I stopped hearing from him.
There are other stories. A woman from the U.K. used my blog posts and photos of me to construct a fictional online identity, and after she was caught, the guy who had fallen in love with her attempted to transfer his affections to me. I got emails from men telling me that they had seen me out at this concert or that bar or cafe, but they hadn’t worked up the nerve to say hello. I would comb through my memories of those nights, trying to remember having seen someone looking at me.
All of this gave me a constant feeling that I was being watched. The 4,000 people I pictured in the 4,000-person-sized room usually stared at me expectantly, waiting for me to write something good, but other times they just watched. I kept on writing, because I didn’t know how not to write, and 99% of my readers were nice sane people who appreciated what I had to say.
Here is where I remind you that I’ve almost never done any non-blog writing. My stint as a person who writes (I don’t like to say I’m a writer) began with blogging, and continued with blogging, and doesn’t really exist outside of that. People always tell me I should write things just for myself and not post them. But I don’t exactly know how to write something that won’t be shared immediately.
Eventually I did stop writing regularly. Weblogs stopped being the best and easiest way to meet and keep in touch with people, and my site traffic fell. Blog commenting technology improved, allowing me to delete comments I felt were inappropriate or scary, but those comments never really came.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my internet fame from time to time, especially when it happens to my friends and I can see the looks on their faces when someone they’ve never met tells them they like their work. If I hadn’t stopped writing, would I be a professional writer right now? Would I have an agent? A book deal? (There’s an old, old message in my “Other” folder on Facebook from a publisher asking me if I’d be interested in writing a book. I never followed up.)
If I hadn’t stopped writing, would I be safe?
At the XOXOFest closing party, I was talking with my friend Casey about Anita Sarkeesian. She’d spoken at the festival despite the numerous threats to her life and family she’d received in response to her video series about women in gaming culture, and Casey and I were discussing how impressed we were by her work, her tenacity and fortitude. I told Casey that if I had to deal with what Sarkeesian has, I would just have curled up into a ball on my bathroom floor and stayed there forever. No way would I have been able to continue my work as she has.
And I guess I didn’t continue my work. Granted, that was more about my depression than my online creeps, and my online creeps were of a different caliber and much smaller magnitude than hers are, but I can still see the comparison.
I realized while talking with Casey that in not writing about my online creeps back in 2000-2004, I missed an opportunity to expand (start?) the discussion about What It’s Like For Women On The Interwebs. What it was like is that I wrote about myself, about being a college student and a waitress, about traveling, about living with depression and anxiety, and people (men) thought this meant that I owed them something. But I don’t owe anyone anything. I’m not sure what Sarkeesian’s harassers want from her (silence? an apology? I doubt they actually know what they want), but she doesn’t owe them anything either.